Drunken Drivers Could Face More Penalties in Nebraska

By JULIA SHUMWAY | February 6, 2017

Drunken drivers in Nebraska who refuse to take blood tests could be in for harsher punishments, including up to a year in jail and fines of up to $1,000.

Refusing to take a breathalyzer or blood test had been a crime in Nebraska, along with 11 other states. However, the U.S. Supreme Court last summer ruled law enforcement officers must obtain search warrants to require blood tests.

The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee heard a bill Friday that would make failing to comply with those warrants a separate criminal offense and create stricter penalties.

“It’s designed to allow our law enforcement officers an enforcement tool to make sure drunk drivers are taken off our roads,” said Sen John Lowe, of Kearney, the bill’s sponsor. :Giving them this tool is something worthwhile.”

The bill as written would make refusing to submit to a blood test a Class I misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in county jail, a fine of up to $1,000 and losing a driver’s license for 18 months. In contrast, actually being convicted of first-offense drunken driving can cause drivers to lose their licenses for up to six months, along with up to 10 days in jail and a $500 fine.

Lowe said he plans to file an amendment removing the loss of driving privileges.

State law already criminalizes actions such as failing to appear in court or pay court-ordered child support, said Buffalo County deputy county attorney Patrick Lee. Lowe’s bill just fixes a loophole, he said.

In 2015 and 2016, Buffalo County had 435 DUI arrests and 34 people refused to submit to blood tests, including four who’ve refused to comply with search warrants since the Supreme Court ruling. Prosecutors are left without options, Lee said.

“We’re not going to strap someone down and take their blood,” he said.

Sen. Ernie Chambers, of Omaha, questioned whether blood tests could be construed as a violation of the Fifth Amendment, which protects criminal defendants from being witnesses against themselves. He promised to filibuster the bill if it made it to the full Legislature.

“To me, that’s compelling a person to testify against himself or herself,” Chambers said. “I’ll never support a bill like this.”

The committee also heard a bill Friday that would allow juries deciding how to award damages in civil cases where a drunken driver hurt or killed another person to see evidence the driver was drunk. Members were leaning toward killing that bill because of concerns it could result in civil juries awarding punitive damages, something that isn’t allowed under the Nebraska Constitution.

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